The Traditional Urbanism of the West Village

I thoroughly enjoyed this pair of online classes from the ICAA. The planner Rodrigo Bollat Montenegro takes us on a grand tour of the urbanism of Greenwich Village, in which he touches on everything from Leon Krier’s elements of good traditional cities to the still-visible remnants of colonial property lines and century-old street extensions. 3.25 credits toward your ICAA Certificate in Classical Architecture if you complete the quiz at the end.

Part of the urban fabric of the West Village in 1895, from a Sanborn map of NYC. Source: NYPL.

A Quick Status Check on Zoning Reform

I have an article at Strong Towns that looks at recent zoning-reform developments from around the US, including — primarily — efforts to reduce the footprints of exclusively single-family residential zones. The goal of such efforts is allow for legal two-family homes, mother-in-law houses, studio apartments, and similar lower-impact arrangements on privately owned land. Check it out for a snapshot of reforms, and early results, in Minneapolis, Oregon, and California.

The Intrinsic Value of Poor (or Adaptable) Neighborhoods

Howard Husock’s The Poor Side of Town: and Why We Need It looks at the history of American housing policy since Jacob Riis. Exploring the social and economic value of poor neighborhoods, Husock examines how urban processes are intertwined with civil society, and their traditional role in allowing Americans (especially migrants) to shape their lives and obtain an initial foothold in a commercial society. Husock also explores how a century of American public policy — in particular, the growth of prescriptive land use regulations and the failures of large-scale public housing — has interrupted or distorted the participatory, resourceful urban adaptations that once fostered new communities and small-scale property wealth. My review of this timely and thoughtful book is now up.

Pace Jacob Riis, many working-class neighborhoods of the industrial age, like this street in Philadelphia circa 1910, comprised small rowhouses or other human-scaled housing options. Source: Helen Parrish, National Housing Association (1911).

The Missing Middle for Incremental Growth

I have a new essay in City Journal that looks at Daniel Parolek’s Missing Middle Housing — and the case for both land use and financing policies that encourage builders to develop more midsized housing options in growing regions. The bottom line: traditionally, homeowners could develop additional units as neighborhood markets signaled demand through rising prices. As this demand was met, prices would trend toward an equilibrium — with the smaller units being most affordable.

Today, land use policies often prevent or limit these kinds of resourceful adaptations by owners — and subject any proposed changes to the gauntlet of local politics, where those who oppose any change often have a deep advantage. (Note how even the legal concept of ‘spot zoning’ militates against boards allowing incremental change, by deeming it facially illegitimate to change the rules for a single property outside the comprehensive planning process — even though such gradual adaptation in response to opportunities is how cities have historically grown.) One result, in the aggregate, has been a widespread shortage of affordable housing in growing regions.

Victorian-era rowhouses in New York’s Hudson Valley. Such construction traditionally provided an attractive segment of housing on small amounts of land. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack.

Besim Hakim on Traditional Urban Growth

The historic center of Tunis, as it appeared circa 1890. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring, I mentioned the work of Besim Hakim in an article at TAC about the traditional urbanism of the Mediterranean. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to speak with Hakim (an incredibly kind and knowledgeable man); and also to read an earlier book of his, Arabic-Islamic Cities, in which he laid out his findings about traditional urban planning rules from the Islamic world. Here’s an excerpt from a review that I offered:

Excellent research and analysis. The author provides an in-depth study of the traditional rules and urban forms that shaped urban growth in the Islamic west (i.e., the Maghreb and Andalucía). Much of what he uncovers and writes about (including treatises by medieval jurists and observations of repeating patterns) adds significant depth to the conventional present-day, Western understanding of urban genesis.

The author’s primary case study is the old city of Tunis, which sits near the Mediterranean coast, close to the site of ancient Carthage. For more than a thousand years, Tunis grew according to a bundle of simple and flexible traditions. The author’s maps and diagrams illuminate these visually — and an accompanying narrative provides context and explanation. Topics range from the small (e.g., party walls, windows, houses, and cul-de-sacs) to the large (e.g., marketplaces, religious sites, defensive walls, and citywide patterns).

Many unique elements of Islamic and Mediterranean urbanism (e.g., covered markets, privacy measures shaped by religious traditions, and arcades over public streets) are treated carefully. Citations to the Quran and Hadith illuminate the cultural aspects of the Islamic components (or justifications) of the urban form. (A later book by the same author, Mediterranean Urbanism, traces a variety of similar urban phenomena from ancient times down through the Byzantine Empire to the building practices of Christian Europe.)

This is a valuable piece of scholarship that is focused on the traditional, sustainable building patterns of vernacular urbanism. Urban planners, lawyers, builders, and architects should read this (as well as Hakim’s Mediterranean Urbanism) for a deeper understanding of how towns and cities were traditionally formed. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in urbanism, history, property law, or the dynamic between customs and the built environment.

I’m gradually making progress on an essay that I think will be of interest to general readers, that will examine some of this history, including what Hakim has uncovered. In the meantime, I highly recommend Hakim’s work to readers with an interest in the nuts and bolts of more traditional approaches to urban growth. His writing is incredibly interesting, well researched and documented, and relevant to the challenges towns and cities face today.

Lehigh Valley Blues

Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1910.

Addison del Mastro has a thoughtful essay at Real Clear Policy about the changing real estate landscape in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, a region that includes the older cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. His piece is focused on the disappearance of affordable housing across the region as it becomes more closely entwined with the economy of New York City. Long-term residents are being priced out; new housing is coming online very slowly, due to the usual morass of American regulatory barriers; and what’s being built largely caters to those with money.

I find it very sad to see this phenomena marching deeper into the American continent. Clearly, we have learned little from the past 40 years, because this is a repetition of a pattern that was seen in the working-class parts of New Jersey and the outer boroughs of New York City a generation ago. A community cannot absorb a great influx of new people under restrictive land use regulations without squeezing out long-term residents. At first, the results seem positive: reinvestment in vacant properties and improving tax rolls. But once any slack in the market is soaked up, this is what happens. And while some owners will cash out on rising property values, local renters and young people will be the ones who get the business end of the deal.

On a brighter note, it’s true what Addison writes about Pennsylvania’s small-town urbanism, here and on his Substack. My firm recently proposed on some planning work in the anthracite coal region, where zoning has never been enacted by some towns. The urban patterns are very traditional. Towns may be five blocks long, but for those five blocks it feels as though you’re in an old city. It’s nice.

The Story Behind Erie RR Co. v. Tompkins

This 2019 law review article by Brian L. Frye, “The Ballad of Harry James Tompkins,” is more than an excellent piece of legal history scholarship. It is also a riveting tale of ambitious lawyers, the dangers of freight trains, hoboes during the Great Depression, life in Pennsylvania’s coal country, and a how a host of terrible American class attitudes crossed paths in the aftermath of one poor man’s grievous injuries.

To be honest, I couldn’t stop reading. A taste:

At about 2:30 a.m. on Friday, July 27, 1934, William Colwell of Hughestown, Pennsylvania was awakened by two young men banging on his front door. When he went downstairs, they told him that someone had been run over by a train. Colwell looked out his side window. In the moonlight, he saw someone lying on the ground near the railroad tracks. He went back upstairs and told his wife that there had been an accident. She told him “not to go out, that them fellows was crazy,” but he dressed and went out to help anyway.

Colwell’s house was at the stub-end of Hughes Street, where it ran into the railroad tracks. When he reached the tracks, he discovered his neighbor Harry James Tompkins, about 6 or 10 feet south of Hughes Street. Tompkins had a deep gash on his right temple, and his severed right arm was in between the tracks. Colwell told the young men to go to Mrs. Rentford’s house down the street and call an ambulance. After calling the ambulance, they disappeared.

Here is a direct link to the whole article, “The Ballad of Harry James Tompkins,” at the Akron Law Review.

Elsewhere, Frye gives fascinating accounts of the legal theories, interests, and found-facts that helped shape the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case that resulted, Erie Railroad Co. v. Tompkins (1938) (“There is no federal general common law.”), raising the strong possibility that there was a bit more to the story than what made it into Justice Brandeis’s written opinion.

My own small contribution to preserving the history of the Erie case: I added a marker to Google Maps near the abandoned railroad crossing where Mr. Tompkins was hurt in 1934.

A Time to Build

Traditional city rooflines on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

The Wall Street Journal reports today that the United States needs 5.5 million new housing units. That’s a serious backlog. As a nation, we are not building homes quickly enough to keep up with population growth. This is the story behind the soaring prices we hear about in the news. Digging a bit deeper, it could also be a key factor in falling birthrates and adults who continue to live in their parents’ home. So, how do we get serious about building the homes people need? Shouldn’t the market be driving toward an equilibrium?

The market is hot (again), but the shortage is chronic. Part of the problem is undoubtedly zoning, especially in the regions with the greatest demand. In New Jersey, the Mount Laurel doctrine has been a valuable tool since the 1970s, when it established the basic legal principle that zoning is a state action that may not be used to exclude entire classes of state residents from particular communities; to do so is inconsistent with the 1947 New Jersey Constitution. (I simplify, but not too much.) The New Jersey Fair Housing Act, which the state legislature enacted in 1985 to follow the Mount Laurel cases, has helped produce a significant number of regulated affordable units, over the years. Yet Mount Laurel, though based on an exemplary principle, has invited constant political resistance. Its implementation has been obnoxiously complicated. Worse, it does little tangible good for New Jersey residents who don’t fall into the income band for affordable housing — or even many who do, because the demand always outstrips the availability of units.

Yet today, more than four decades after Mount Laurel crystallized the concept of exclusionary zoning, the impacts of a chronic housing shortage reach much further up New Jersey’s socioeconomic hierarchy than they did in 1974, when the first case was argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court. That is, there remains a severe shortage of decent, affordable housing units for poor and working-class people. But there is also a dearth of homes for sale (or rent) at higher price points, in many communities — a bottleneck similar to ones that have formed, to greater or lesser degrees, in other high-cost metropolitan regions throughout the world. Not surprisingly, out-migration continues apace. Yet immigration keeps the overall population going up. Those who stay pay more for less.

So how can this unmet housing need be met? And should housing policy necessarily be bureaucratized, or could it be pursued more effectively by unlocking the private production of more market-built, non-income-regulated units? One concept that the Mount Laurel formulas acknowledge is filtering. That is, older units (often well built!) will become more affordable, through market forces, when newer units are produced quickly enough to soak up a lot of the high-end demand. This is how, for example, poor and working-class people inherited the incredible (if neglected) Art Deco apartments of the Grand Concourse (for a time — they are getting expensive again!).

I believe the next frontier will be a process of artfully (at best) customizing and improving zoning laws. Done wisely, this will foster the construction of market-rate homes that complement our existing neighborhoods while improving land values and strengthening public finances.

Housing Exuberance?

An exuberant house in New York City’s Douglaston neighborhood. Photo: Theo Mackey Pollack

In an interview this week with Yahoo! Finance, Yale economist Robert Shiller weighed in on the state of the US housing market, which has surged during Covid-time. Longtime readers may know that I’ve long found Shiller’s market analysis intriguing — especially because he has such a keen interest in the human customs and psychology that shape our markets, and those factors tend to be hard to quantify (which undermines the supposedly mathematical nature of trade). In this clip, Shiller talks a bit about some of the psychological factors that may be at work in the Covid-time housing boom — and where things may be going next. His bottom line? “Home prices are likely to be high for another year or two, and they will bring in a supply response and come back down. Not overnight, but enough to cause some pain.”

For context, this month, the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller New York Home Price NSA Index showed a housing price change in the New York City region of 12.3 percent (+) in the 12 months ending March 2021 — almost precisely corresponding to the year that followed the March 2020 Covid shut-down in New York City and its suburbs.

Pandemic Relief

I had my second shot recently, courtesy of the Essex County (NJ) Department of Health. I have to say, the operation they have going is impressive. For my first appointment, back in April, the site was busy — yet it took less than 15 minutes to go from walking through the front door to receiving a shot (followed by the requisite 15-minute wait, to ensure that I wouldn’t have an allergic reaction). The second appointment was even easier. By this point, the crowds were gone, and I breezed through the intake process and received the vaccination in, probably, five minutes or less. Both times, everyone working on site was professional and efficient and knowledgeable. And friendly (!) — not something you can count on in these kinds of public-facing scenarios.

I still have about a week to go before I am considered fully vaccinated. Not sure how much this will change things. I would say my pre-vaccine approach to Covid was cautious, but not extreme. Masks when going into stores, obviously. I also made a homemade hand sanitizer early in the pandemic when the stores had run out: it was a blend of Everclear 75.5 and peppermint or frankincense essential oil, in a glass spray bottle — and used this assiduously after contact with the outside world. (This actually turned out to be a very pleasant alternative to the commercial sanitizers, which are made with denatured alcohol.) But, while I reduced the frequency of outings, I never stopped going to the grocery store, the bank, or outdoor public spaces. And, fortunately, these efforts, combined with some good luck, seem to have kept me well. And to the extent that the use of masks in indoor public settings has become a habit, I may continue — to avoid colds and allergies, if nothing else.

Homemade sanitizer: food-grade grain alcohol, sometimes with essential oils.